Chosen Family: Stephanie Burt and Chelsey Johnson Discuss “Stray City”




CHELSEY JOHNSON’S Stray City is a Portland novel. It is also a Greater Minnesota novel, as you might expect, since Chelsey grew up in northern Minnesota and lived in Portland, Oregon, during the late 1990s, when the novel takes place. It’s a novel about finding, losing, or almost losing, and ultimately redefining queer community, set in two different moments that now seem even further apart than a calendar might tell you they are, first in a moment of lesbian consolidation, in the embers of the riot grrrl movement, and then in this century, just before Obergefell; it’s a novel about chosen family, and birth family, and queer identity, and (as we now say) bisexual erasure, and about how long it takes us (our whole lives, perhaps) to figure out who we are, and with whom we belong.

It’s also a novel about rock ’n’ roll, that music of American youth and American independence that is actually (whether or not the people who play it know it) a long tradition of collaboration, in which nobody succeeds alone. And it’s a novel with several points of view; describing them all would be giving too much away, but it’s fair to say that the novel starts with Andrea, who finds lesbian community, rock ’n’ roll, and the perfect letterpress in Portland, and then meets a guy who might cause her to lose it all. Later on, there’s a child. The child is awesome — where does she belong?

Chelsey and I had been talking about queer community, about the novel she’s been writing, and about how friends and chosen family form, stay together, or fall apart, off and on for a number of years before I read and fell hard for Stray CityShe has recently moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches at Northern Arizona University. She and I conducted this interview over several hours of internet Gchats, which we then edited down into a more enlightening, more compact form.

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STEPHANIE BURT: Let’s start at the beginning: tell me about how you came to real-life Portland, and what it was like when you arrived.

CHELSEY JOHNSON: The first time I came to Portland was the summer of 1995. It was my first summer totally on my own, financially and personally, and where I came to terms with my queerness. The time was defined by unrequited love, and being constantly broke, and the terror and thrill of seeing, meeting, and sometimes shyly fleeing from lesbians.

Portland then was super cheap, and most of the people I knew lived in big rundown houses with many rooms and worked part-time jobs that didn’t really matter while they played music or did whatever art or thing they really wanted to, or just hung out. I worked at the downtown Baskin-Robbins, did temp work in weird offices, went to shows with a fake ID, and wrote by hand in my notebook.

That moment in your life feels like part of Andrea’s backstory, like part of an imaginary prequel.

Yes, it kind of was! That moment in Portland’s life, and my own, turned out to be crucial for me, not only as a person but as a writer.

One of the things I <3 about the arcs of your novel is the way it opens with an established community. Andrea’s story is not “How will I find it?” but “How and in what ways am I allowed to keep it?”

Yeah, I wanted to plunge right into the world, to inhabit it fully from the outset. And to consider the fragility of such communities even when they seem so robust and deeply rooted.

The communities formed, in part, around rock music, in response to the sexist myths of the independent rock genius, and of the all-male band whose members need only one another.  

When I was originally writing Ryan, I wanted to push against that image of the self-sufficient American man (who’s always white and straight and cis) who needs nothing but himself and who pioneers his way all over the country. Ryan tries to be that, he pursues that template, but that model actually fails him.

Because Ryan finds community — in punk-rock Bemidji, Minnesota!

Of all places!

And other people rescue him again and again.

Right. And despite himself, he finds he does need someone, and wants her to need him, and when she can’t, he can’t handle it and heads out on his own.

The Ryan material in the middle is the oldest part of the novel, right? The part you wrote first?

Yes, I wrote it first, and I wrote it long — I explored him at far greater length than made it into the final cut. Which I’m glad for, in retrospect, because it helped me to know him and to write him with a deep understanding of his motivations, even as he remains enigmatic and frustrating to Andrea.

Another early question in the novel has to do with bisexual erasure, the feeling that bi women aren’t really queer or don’t belong in a queer community, starting with the band name “the Gold Stars.” (Which is an Easter egg, right?)

It is! The erasure is potent enough that Andrea would never, ever identify herself as bi, even as she’s enacting it. These days I think bi identity has been claimed and reclaimed in refreshing and powerful and useful ways, and we largely have trans and genderqueer communities and conversations to thank for that. 

These characters in Portland see themselves (rightly) as part of a liberatory community, and yet they are such gatekeepers, seen through today’s lens.

Totally. At that time there was a lot of mistrust and eye-rolling about bisexuality. Many people saw it as, at best, a way station to “pure” gay, or at worst, as inauthentic and co-opting.

By the end of the novel, I was also thinking about how we define “family.”

Chosen family is a beautiful thing, and a beautiful concept. But it is also imperfect the way all families are imperfect. I think chosen family gets idealized sometimes, and yes, chosen families save lives and make our lives so much better, but people also can’t help but reproduce the damage and dynamics of their born families. Chosen families can also be painful and dysfunctional and fuck people up.

By part three, there are two points of view operating at once, Andrea’s and Lucia’s, as if against all the novels in which you see grown-ups’ world only through the eyes of a kid.

The shifting point of view was essential to that part, because neither character knows what the other is going through, and laying those points of view side by side creates tension and emotional complexity. They’re living in the same house, but having completely different experiences.

I underlined a bunch of coming-out passages early in the book (because they’re so well done, and because it’s all still new to me). “Sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, I had accidentally filled out the [Reed College res life] form for their Andrea instead of the real one. Oops.” Coming out and figuring out what we want in our 20s or later means shedding or breaking out of a false identity, but would you say that Andrea finds her true one? Or is there something misleading, for these characters, in the idea that you ever completely figure out, or get to become, the “real” you?

I like that wording you use of shedding or breaking out of a false identity — that image of molting. The idea would be that under that discarded shell, there’s a real you, finally revealed, right? But then to carry the molting metaphor onward, what’s revealed is actually the new shell.

So I think the identity is truer, it is realer and closer to the true you. But it is still a shell. In Andrea’s case, she claims it so fiercely because it’s protective. She welcomes the essentialism, the strictness, because the harder and more rigid that identity is, the more safely ensconced she is.

Can you talk about how you visualize the houses and other domestic or interior spaces in the novel? Did your sense of houses, dining rooms, rock clubs, bedrooms, change a lot as you went through successive drafts?

Every house and room and space in the book was and is very clear to me, from memory or invented memory. I could draw them or in some cases even pull out photos. I marked their locations on maps. I drove and biked around Portland — and Bemidji, too, which originally took up more space in the book — and chose specific buildings, in some cases, and in other cases grafted places I’d been or known onto other neighborhoods. I can see and smell and navigate all those interiors vividly in my mind.

Wow! Are you willing to name some of the originals (by address, by block, or, in the case of commercial establishments, the place’s real name)? 

La Luna and Satyricon in Portland are both real clubs, now shuttered. Hard Times in Bemidji is real. While I was writing the book, it changed names a few times but now it’s Hard Times again. Artifacts, the shop where Andrea works, has the interior of a midcentury vintage store I used to work in, but I relocated it. Ryan’s apartment building still stands on the corner of SE 12th and Ash. The Spawn, site of the lesbian bloodbath family dinner, is based on a pink Victorian my friend Amanda used to live in. Meena’s Belmont duplex is based on my friend Peyton’s.

The rock camp is exactly as it used to be, though it’s since left the sketchy warehouse and is now housed much more safely in a building that is not a potential firetrap. Writing that space — and so many of these places — was a consecration of sorts. I loved reviving every weird detail. 

Can you talk about Girls Rock Camp? Both the function it serves in the third part of the novel, and your own history of involvement with it?

The rock camp is another familial outpost, another support system Andrea can rely on to help raise Lucia. I started volunteering at the then-nascent camp in 2003, soon after I moved back to Portland, and like so many of us who flocked to it, I was instantly smitten. It was a messy, scrappy utopia held together with duct tape and goodwill and a lot of volunteer effort, especially at first.

It also created this amazing intergenerational space that I think many of us were hungry for — you had the little kids, of course, and teenagers, and then teenagers who had been campers would become interns, and then there were the counsellors who ranged from age 18 to parent-age. It was a rare secular space where kids and teenagers and young adults and adult-adults all came together, and we all were getting hugely transformative life-changing inspiration from it. It was very hard work and there was near-fatal organizational dysfunction early on, but we pulled through and the place thrived. It was the most punk-rock space I’ve ever known, and also the least self-conscious, unabashedly nerdy, and loving and affirming.

While I was writing, one of our beloved campers turned intern turned counsellor and longtime volunteer took her own life. It was devastatingly sad. And I wrote her into the novel, still living, as I knew her, and let Lucia and Sydney adore her the way we all did. So that’s Ariel.

One of the big differences between the queer Portland of part one and the queer Portland of part three is that the queer Portland of part three, closer to the present (but pre-Obergefell), is multigenerational. Do you feel like queerness — for you in the 1990s or for your characters, in part one — was a tradition, a history that you could join, or is the feeling that this generation is the first one ever?

When I was coming out in the 1990s, and for Andrea too, I think it was a history you could join, but you had to prove yourself. Whether that was actual or just internalized, I’m not even sure. But you had to get through the gates, you had to be a real queer. And for me, I did feel a generational rift — I was just a bit younger than the generation(s) that had fought the AIDS war, which killed so many of them and defined them as a group, and except for a few beloved gay professors in college, I mostly only knew queers who were my age. I never knew a queer elder. We were like the Lost Boys or something.

I hope that’s less the case anymore, I hope that queer and trans youth are able to connect with queer and trans adults, and that we pay closer attention to our oldest and our youngest. I hope books help, along with pop culture portrayals generally.

Can you say more about who you wrote for, and who you expected to read it? Sometimes I hear about (or describe, or maybe even write) trans lit for trans readers: is this book queer lit for queer readers?

Consciousness of audience affected me constantly as I wrote this. I wrote it always with the queer reader at the forefront but the straight reader in my periphery. First and foremost I wanted to be true to the queer readership. I had to do right by us. If that was off in any way, the whole thing would be a failure.

But then I was also so conscious of the straight gaze, which made me feel a little vulnerable, I’ll confess, and also protective. I was walking a very fine line with this story and readers’ desires for the characters. Andrea and Ryan’s connection had to be real enough to be plausible, and yet I knew I was up against a thousand years of readers being conditioned toward straight romance, expecting it and hoping for it, which was exactly what I wanted to subvert.

Same with Lucia — her curiosity about Ryan had to be real and genuine, the way kids often (though not always) are about biological parents they’ve never met, and yet I could not bear to mislead the characters (or readers) into a hetero-bio-nuclear fantasy of family. That’s not who any of them are, individually or in relation to each other.

But what’s more intrusive to the writing process than thoughts about the audience? I had to drop it as much as I could while writing, and write as if no one would read it, and then go back over the work and study and revise and edit accordingly.

Who was the hardest character for you to get right?

This might be a toss-up. I spent a lot of time working my way under the rock of Ryan’s intentions (to borrow a great line from Grace Paley), figuring out who he was, where he’d come from, what drove him toward and away from people, places, and things. But I think the character I was most concerned about getting right was Andrea, specifically in connection with her family heritage. Her grandfather came to Nebraska from Mexico, and I really, really wanted to be accurate both factually and emotionally about the lineage of immigration and assimilation — from her grandfather to her father to her. Her queer identity is something I know intimately myself and can borrow elements of from my own experiences. Her experience of her Mexican identity (and her dad’s) I had to work to make sure would ring true. I researched assiduously, including conversations with friends of mixed descent, a couple of whom are specifically Midwesterners of Euro and Mexican descent. They were incredibly helpful and generous. 

How has her Latina/Latinx heritage been received, now that she’s out in the world?

So far, well. A couple of Latinx readers have written to tell me it was spot-on to them, which I was very grateful for. Of course I don’t presume they speak for everyone! But in any case, I haven’t received any pushback or countering of that element of the story. Which I’m totally open to, if anyone has it.

Do you want to say anything more general about your future projects, or about the limits and duties of imaginative writers representing identities that are not our own?

Well, for example, right after you read Stray City you asked me if there might be more about Flynn, if he would get his own story. I love that idea — but I also feel like that’s not my story to tell, my body to inhabit. If a trans writer wanted to take that character and run with it, I’d say, “Go for it.”

In a New York Times Magazine profile a couple years ago, Patricia Lockwood said, “I consistently felt myself to be not male or female, but the 11-year-old gender: protagonist. Maybe it’s a byproduct of reading a lot of books, of projecting yourself into different bodies.” I loved that. It underscores the urgency and importance of literary protagonists that readers can embody themselves in, in order to feel like stronger protagonists in their own lives. I’m eager for more trans protagonists, on the page and in real life. Really, all underrepresented protagonists.

What else in the response to Stray City has surprised you, or especially pleased you?

Many letters I’ve received have brought me to tears, especially from readers in their teens and 20s, especially queer readers who tell me it has given them courage. One 14-year-old read it eight times and wrote me that this was a book she wouldn’t even put on her bookshelf, but kept in her backpack so she could return to it whenever she wanted.

Is this The Book You Wish You Had Read at 14?

I hadn’t thought about that, but I think I would have been thrilled to read a book like this when I was 14! There was so little queer lit. Sure, there was a lot of small-feminist-lesbian-press lit, but it was definitely not to be found in Park Rapids, Minnesota, population 2,796, and I don’t know that it would have spoken to me then. The second-wavers were on their own trip. Most of my first queer lit reading was AIDS lit. Which was fantastic. But life-and-death stakes. Crisis lit. I hungered for queer stories that weren’t only tragic. And I guess I wrote one.

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Stephanie Burt is a poet, critic, and professor of English at Harvard University. She is co-poetry-editor at The Nation and her collection Advice from the Lights: Poems was released in 2017 by Graywolf Press.


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